Merton, Thomas

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Thomas Merton


Religious name, Father M. Louis; born January 31, 1915, in Prades, Pyrennes-Orientales, France; brought to the United States, 1916; returned to France, 1925; came to the United States, 1936; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1951; fatally electrocuted, December 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Thailand; son of Owen Heathcote (an artist) and Ruth (an artist; maiden name, Jenkins) Merton. Education: Attended Clare College, Cambridge, 1933-34; Columbia University, B.A., 1938, M.A., 1939. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Priest, writer, artist, and educator. Instructor in English, Columbia University Extension Division, New York, NY, 1938-39, and St. Bonaventure University, Allegheny, NY, 1939-41; Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, KY, Roman Catholic monk of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists), beginning 1941, ordained Roman Catholic priest, 1949, master of scholastics, 1951-55, monastic forester, beginning 1951, novice master, 1955-65, lived as a hermit on grounds of monastery after 1965. Exhibitions: Drawings exhibited in Louisville, KY; St. Louis, MO; New Orleans, LA; Milwaukee, WI; and Santa Barbara, CA, 1964-65.


Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Awards, Honors

Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer Award, 1939; citation from Catholic Press Association of the United States, 1948, for Figures for an Apocalypse; Catholic Literary Award, Gallery of Living Catholic Authors, 1949, for The Seven Storey Mountain; Catholic Writers Guild Golden Book Award for the best spiritual book by an American writer, 1951, for The Ascent to the Truth; Columbia University Medal for Excellence, 1961; LL.D., University of Kentucky, 1963; Pax Medal, 1963; Religious Book Award, Catholic Press Association, 1973, for The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton.



Thirty Poems (also see below), New Directions (New York, NY), 1944.

A Man in the Divided Sea (includes poems from Thirty Poems), New Directions (New York, NY), 1946.

Figures for an Apocalypse (also contains an essay), New Directions (New York, NY), 1948.

The Tears of Blind Lions, New Directions (New York, NY), 1949.

Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, Hollis Carter (London, England), 1950.

The Strange Islands: Poems (also see below), New Directions (New York, NY), 1957.

Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, New Directions (New York, NY), 1959, revised edition, 1967.

The Solitary Life, limited edition, Anvil Press (Lexington, KY), 1960.

Hagia Sophia (prose poem), Stamperia del Santuccio (Lexington, KY), 1962, with illustrations by Victor Hammer, 1978.

Emblems of a Season of Fury (also contains prose and translations), New Directions (New York, NY), 1963.

Cables to the Ace; or, Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding, New Directions (New York, NY), 1968.

Landscape, Prophet, and Wild-Dog, [Syracuse, NY], 1968.

(Author of lyrics) Four Freedom Songs, G.I.A. Publications (Chicago, IL), 1968.

The Geography of Lograire, New Directions (New York, NY), 1969.

Early Poems: 1940-42, Anvil Press (Lexington, KY), 1972.

He Is Risen: Selections from Thomas Merton, Argus Communications (Niles, IL), 1975.

The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, New Directions (New York, NY), 1977.

(Author of lyrics) The Niles-Merton Songs: Opus 171 and 172, music by John Jacob Miles, Mark Foster Music (Champaign, IL), 1981.


What Is Contemplation? (also see below), Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame (Holy Cross, IN), 1948, revised edition, Templegate (Springfield, IL), 1981.

Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions (New York, NY), 1949, revised and expanded edition published as New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions (New York, NY), 1962, reprinted, Shambhala (Boston, MA), 2003.

The Ascent to the Truth, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1951.

Bread in the Wilderness, New Directions (New York, NY), 1953.

No Man Is an Island, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1955.

The Living Bread, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1956.

Praying the Psalms, Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN), 1956, published as The Psalms Are Our Prayer, Burns & Oates (London, England), 1957, published as Thomas Merton on the Psalms, Sheldon Press (London, England), 1970.

The Silent Life, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1957.

Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1958.

The Christmas Sermons of Bl. Guerric of Igny (essay), Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Bardstown, KY), 1959.

Spiritual Direction and Meditation (also see below), Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN), 1960.

Disputed Questions (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1960.

The Behavior of Titans, New Directions (New York, NY), 1961.

The New Man, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1962.

Life and Holiness, Herder & Herder (New York, NY), 1963.

Seeds of Destruction (includes correspondence), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1964, abridged edition published as Redeeming the Time, Burns & Oates (London, England), 1966.

Seasons of Celebration, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1965, published as Meditations on Liturgy, Mowbrays (London, England), 1976.

Mystics and Zen Masters (includes "The Ox Mountain Parable of Meng Tzu"; also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1967.

Zen and the Birds of Appetite, New Directions (New York, NY), 1968.

Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1968.

The Climate of Monastic Prayer, Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo, MI), 1969, published as Contemplative Prayer, Herder & Herder (New York, NY), 1969.

True Solitude: Selections from the Writings of Thomas Merton, Hallmark Editions (Kansas City, MO), 1969.

Three Essays, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1969.

Opening the Bible, Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN), 1970, revised edition, 1983.

Contemplation in a World of Action, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1971, revised edition, University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, IN), 1998.

The Zen Revival, Buddhist Society (London, England), 1971.

Thomas Merton on Peace, McCall (New York, NY), 1971, revised edition published as The Nonviolent Alternative, edited and with an introduction by Gordon C. Zahn, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1980.

Spiritual Direction and Meditation; and, What Is Contemplation?, A. Clarke (Westhampstead, England), 1975.

Thomas Merton on Zen, Sheldon Press (London, England), 1976.

The Power and Meaning of Love (includes selections from Disputed Questions), Sheldon Press (London, England), 1976.

Ishi Means Man: Essays on Native Americans, foreword by Dorothy Day, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1976.

The Monastic Journey, edited by Patrick Hart, Sheed, Andrews & McMeel (Mission, KS), 1977.

Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Patrick Hart, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1979.

Thomas Merton on St. Bernard, Cistercian Publications (Kalamazoo, MI), 1980.

The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton, edited by Patrick Hart, New Directions (New York, NY), 1981.

Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, edited by William Henry Shannon, Crossroad Publishing (New York, NY), 1995.

(With Eberhard Arnold) Why We Live in Community, Plough (New York, NY), 1995.

The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey Gethsemani, Aye Maria (Notre Dame, IN), 1997.

Mornings with Thomas Merton: Readings and Reflections, selected by John C. Blattner, Charis Books (Ann Arbor, MI), 1998.

Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, edited by Christine Bochen, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 2000.

Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, edited by Jonathan Montaldo, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.

The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, edited and with an introduction by William H. Shannon, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2003.

Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 2003.

When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, edited by Kathleen Deignan, drawings by John Giuliani, foreword by Thomas Berry, Sorin Books (Notre Dame, IN), 2003.


The Seven Storey Mountain, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1948, abridged edition published as Elected Silence: The Autobiography of Thomas Merton, introduction by Evelyn Waugh, Hollis Carter (London, England), 1949, fiftieth anniversary edition, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1999.

The Sign of Jonas (journal), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1953.

The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1959.

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (journal), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1966, 2nd edition, Sheldon Press (London, England), 1977.

The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, edited by Naomi Burton Stone, Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin, New Directions (New York, NY), 1973.

(And photographer) Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook, May, 1968, Museum of New Mexico Press (Santa Fe, NM), 1982.

A Vow of Conversation: Journals, 1964-65, edited by Naomi Burton Stone, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.

Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume 1: Run to the Mountain, Volume 2: Entering the Silence, Volume 3: A Search for Solitude, Volume 4: Turning toward the World: The Pivotal Years, Volume 5: Dancing in the Water of Life: Seeking Peace in the Hermitage, Volume 6: Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom, edited by Christine Bochen, Volume 7: The Other Side of the Mountain: The End of the Journey, 1967-1968, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1995-98.


Exile Ends in Glory: The Life of a Trappistine, Mother M. Berchmans, O.C.S.O., Bruce (Milwaukee, WI), 1948.

What Are These Wounds?: The Life of a Cistercian Mystic, Saint Lutgarde of Aywieres, Clonmore Reynolds (Dublin, Ireland), 1949, Bruce (Milwaukee, WI), 1950.

The Last of the Fathers: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and the Encyclical Letter "Octor Mellifluus," Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1954.


Six Letters: Boris Pasternak, Thomas Merton, edited by Naomi Burton Stone, King Library Press, University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1973.

(With Robert Lax) A Catch of Anti-Letters, Sheed, Andrews & McMeel (Mission, KS), 1978.

Letters from Tom: A Selection of Letters from Father Thomas Merton, Monk of Gethsemani, to W. H. Ferry, 1961-1968, edited by W. H. Ferry, Fort Hill Press (Scarsdale, NY), 1983.

The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, selected and edited by William Henry Shannon, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1985.

The Road to Joy: The Letters of Thomas Merton to New and Old Friends, edited by Robert E. Daggy, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1989.

The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, edited by Patrick Hart, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1990.

The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton to Writers, edited by Christine M. Bochen, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1993.

Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis, edited by William Henry Shannon, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1994.

At Home in the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Rosemary Radford Ruether, edited by Mary Tardiff, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 1995.

Striving toward Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz, edited by Robert Faggen (New York, NY), 1997.

Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters,

W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997.

When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2001.

Survival or Prophecy?: Letters of Thomas Merton and Jean Leclercq, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.


What Ought I Do?: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Stamperia del Santuccio (Lexington, KY), 1959, revised and expanded edition published as The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, New Directions (New York, NY), 1961.

The Ox Mountain Parable of Meng Tzu, Stamperia del Santuccio (Lexington, KY), 1960.

(And contributor and author of introduction) Breakthrough to Peace: Twelve Views on the Threat of Thermonuclear Extermination, New Directions (New York, NY), 1962.

(And author of introduction) Mohandas Gandhi, Gandhi on Non-Violence: Selected Texts from Gandhi's "Non-Violence in Peace and War," New Directions (New York, NY), 1965.

(And author of introductory essays) The Way of Chuang Tzu, New Directions (New York, NY), 1965.

(And author of introduction and commentary) Albert Camus, The Plague, Seabury Press (New York, NY), 1968.


Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1946, new edition with introduction by Merton, Image Books (New York, NY), 1961.

Saint John Eudes, The Life and the Kingdom of Jesus in Christian Souls for the Use by Clergy or Laity, P. J. Kennedy Sons (New York, NY), 1946.

(And author of commentary) The Spirit of Simplicity Characteristic of the Cistercian Order: An Official Report, Demanded and Approved by the General Chapter Together with Texts from St. Bernard Clairvaux on Interior Simplicity, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1948.

(And author of preface) Cassiodorus, A Prayer from the Treatise "De anima," Stanbrook Abbey Press (Worcester, England), 1956.

(And author of explanatory essay) Clement of Alexandria, Selections from the Protreptikos, New Directions (New York, NY), 1963.

(And author of introduction) Guigo I, The Solitary Life: A Letter from Guigo, Stanbrook Abbey Press (Worcester, England), 1963, published as On the Solitary Life, Banyan Press (Pawlet, VT), 1977.

(With others) Nicanor Parra, Poems and Antipoems, edited by Miller Williams, New Directions (New York, NY), 1967.

Pablo Antonio Cuadra, El jaguar y la luna/The Jaguar and the Moon (bilingual edition), Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1974.


Cistercian Contemplatives: Monks of the Strict Observance at Our Lady of Gethsemani, Kentucky, Our Lady of the Holy Ghost, Georgia, Our Lady of the Holy Trinity, Utah—A Guide to the Trappist Life, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1948.

Gethsemani Magnificat: Centenary of Gethsemani Abbey, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1949.

(Photographer) John Howard Griffin, A Hidden Wholeness: The Visual World of Thomas Merton, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1970.

Geography of Holiness: The Photography of Thomas Merton, edited by Deba Prasad Patnaik, Pilgrim Press (New York, NY), 1980.


The Waters of Siloe (history), Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1949, reprinted, 1979, revised edition published as The Waters of Silence, Hollis & Carter (London, England), 1950, deluxe limited edition, Theodore Brun Limited (London, England), 1950.

The Tower of Babel (two-act play), [Hamburg, West Germany] 1957, New Directions (New York, NY), 1958.

(And illustrator) Monastic Peace, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1958.

Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave (prose poem), New Directions (New York, NY), 1962.

A Thomas Merton Reader, edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1962, revised and enlarged edition, Image Books (New York, NY), 1974.

Come to the Mountain: New Ways and Living Traditions in the Monastic Life, Saint Benedict's Cistercian Monastery (Snowmass, CO), 1964.

The Poorer Means: A Meditation on Ways to Unity, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1965.

(Author of text) Gethsemani: A Life of Praise, Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (Trappist, KY), 1966.

Christ in the Desert, Monastery of Christ in the Desert (Abiquiu, NM), 1968.

My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1969.

Cistercian Life, Cistercian Book Service (Spenser, MA), 1974.

Introductions East and West: The Foreign Prefaces of Thomas Merton, edited by Robert E. Daggy, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1981, revised edition published as Honorable Reader: Reflections on My Work, Crossroad Publishing (New York, NY), 1989.

(And illustrator) Blaze of Recognition: Through the Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations, selected and edited by Thomas P. McDonnell, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1983, published as Through the Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Writings, Image Books (New York, NY), 1985.

Monks Pond: Thomas Merton's Little Magazine (collected issues), edited by Robert E. Daggy, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1989.

Thomas Merton: Preview of the Asian Journey, edited by Walter H. Capps, Crossroad Publishing (New York, NY), 1989.

Thomas Merton in Alaska: Prelude to the Asian Journal: The Alaskan Conferences, Journals, and Letters, New Directions (New York, NY), 1989.

Thomas Merton's Rewritings: The Five Versions of Seeds/ New Seeds of Contemplation as a Key to the Development of His Thought, edited by Donald Grayson, Edwin Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1989.

The Springs of Contemplation: A Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, edited by Jane Marie Richardson, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1992.

Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S. Cunningham, Paulist Press (New York, NY), 1992.

Ways of the Christian Mystics, Shambhala (Boston, MA), 1994.

Run to the Mountain: The Story of a Vocation, edited by Patrick Hart, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1995.

Thoughts on the East, New Directions (New York, NY), 1995.

Also author of numerous shorter works and pamphlets, including A Balanced Life of Prayer, 1951, Basic Principles of Monastic Spirituality, 1957, Prometheus: A Meditation, 1958, Nativity Kerygma, 1958, Monastic Vocation and the Background of Modern Secular Thought, 1964, and Notes on the Future of Monasticism, 1968. Author of introductions to books, including Mansions of the Spirit: Essays in Religion and Literature, edited by George A. Panichas, Hawthorn (New York, NY), 1967; John Wu, The Golden Age of Zen, 1975; and Counsels of Light and Love, Paulist Press (New York, NY), 1977. Contributor to books, including New Anthology of Modern Poetry, revised edition, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1946; The Happy Crusaders, McMullen (New York, NY), 1952; and J. F. Powers, Herder & Herder (New York, NY), 1968. Contributor of book reviews, articles, and poetry to periodicals, including New York Herald Tribune, New York Times Book Review, Commonweal, Catholic World, and Catholic Worker. Editor, Monks Pond (quarterly), 1968.

Merton's works have been translated into French, Spanish, and other languages.

Merton's manuscripts are held at the Thomas Merton Studies Center, Bellarmine College, Louisville, KY.


The Tower of Babel, condensed and adapted by Richard J. Walsh, was televised by the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC-TV), 1957. Merton's poem "For My Brother, Reported Missing in Action, 1943" was set to music by Frank Ferko, E. C. Schirmer (Boston, MA), 2000.


"A man knows he has found a vocation when he stops thinking about how to live and begins to live," wrote Thomas Merton in his Thoughts in Solitude. Merton lived this dictum to the fullest, finding his vocation—that of Trappist monk and writer—and never looking back. The great irony of Merton's life, however, is that while he took a vow of silence, he had a terrific need to communicate. In dozens of works in a plethora of genres, including poetry, essays, letters, lyrics, translations, and illustrations, Merton expresses his thoughts on topics ranging from matters of faith to the world of politics. His best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, thrust him into the limelight when still a young man; later his outspoken criticisms of social injustice, from segregation in the United States to the war in Vietnam, earned him the approbation of his superiors in the Roman Catholic Church, but applause from social liberals. Merton served as an example to the religious as well as to those of no denomination due to his courage and refusal to let a life of isolation let him avoid confronting the problems of the world.

The very diversity of Merton's work has rendered a precise definition of his life and an estimation of the significance of his career difficult. In The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Michael Mott called him a "poet, writer, activist, contemplative, . . . reformer of monastic life, artist, [and] bridge between Western and Eastern religious thought." In the New York Times Book Review, however, Mott admitted to D. J. R. Brucker that he "was never able to categorize" the writer. "The breadth and freshness of his interests," Mott explained, were "simply amazing." For Richard J. Hauser, writing in America, "Merton remains the single most influential American Catholic spiritual author" of his generation.

"Paradoxical" perhaps best summarizes Merton's life and works. In a Publishers Weekly interview with Ellen Mangin, for example, Mott noted that although Merton was a contemplative who led a life dedicated to meditation, the events of his life were such to generate a nearly six-hundred-page biography. Not only was Merton a contemplative, but he was also a Trappist, a member of a branch of Roman Catholic monks known for their severely simple living conditions and their vow of silence in which all conversation is forbidden. Merton's accomplishments as an author are even more remarkable considering that when he entered the Trappist monastery in Kentucky in 1941, monks were allowed to write only two half-page letters four times a year and nothing more.

In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Victor A. Kramer also commented on the contradictory aspects of Merton's life and work, observing that the man's "dual career as a cloistered monk and prolific writer, a career of silence yet one which allowed him to speak to thousands of readers world wide, was a paradox." The significance of this contrasting need in Merton for both silence and fellowship with the people outside the monastery walls "was a source of anxiety to Merton himself," stated Ross Labrie in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981. However, according to Labrie, "it is one of the strongest centers of excitement in approaching his work as well as being one of the clearest
ways to see his role in twentieth-century letters." James Thomas Baker similarly believed that the dichotomy of monk/writer in Merton's personality is an essential ingredient in his writing. As Baker stated in Thomas Merton: Social Critic, there exists "an oriental paradox about his life and thought, the paradox of a monk speaking to the world, which gave it the quality that was uniquely Merton, and any other career would have robbed his work of that quality." Due to the abundant autobiographical material Merton produced—at his death, he left behind 800,000 words of unpublished writings, mainly journals and letters, as well as hundreds of taped talks—much is known about how Merton dealt with the anxiety produced by his paradoxical desire to be both a contemplative and a social activist.

Youth and Conversion

Merton was born in Prades, France, in 1915, the son of artists who met in Paris. His father was a New Zealand-born landscape painter named Owen Merton, and his mother was American painter Ruth Jenkins; they met in 1911 in a Parisian art school and married in 1914. The birth of their first son did little to change the Mertons' idealistic, bohemian lifestyle, which found them working for world peace. They were not able to earn a living from their painting, but Ruth's work as an interior decorator and Owen's efforts as a gardener and farmer helped to make ends meet. With the coming of World War I, the pacifistic Mertons found themselves at odds with the French government, which was embroiled in a life-and-death struggle played out in trench warfare across the country. The family moved to the United States in 1916, staying with Ruth's parents on Long Island. The Mertons soon found their own home and eked out a living from farming and journalism. Meanwhile, Owen's work as a church organist was as close to organized religion as the Merton family got. A second son, John Paul, was born in 1918.

When Thomas Merton was six years old, his mother died of stomach cancer. The family's erratic lifestyle grew even more unsettled thereafter, as Owen Merton traveled variously to Cape Cod and Bermuda to paint. As the father grew poorer, however, and the two sons wilder by the day, it was decided that Tom and John Paul would live with their maternal grandparents for a time. Meanwhile, Owen Merton traveled to the South of France, where he began to make a decent living. Tom soon rejoined his father in France, while his brother remained with his grandparents. He first enrolled at a Catholic school in the village where his father lived, but after a visit to the United States and the strong objections voiced by his grandparents, he transferred to another French school, remaining there until 1928, when he and his father relocated to England.

In England Merton's father died and the sixteen year old found himself an orphan. Fortunately, an aunt and uncle were able to help out, and an allowance from his grandfather provided sufficient funds for the teen to attend Oakham public school, where he became editor of the school literary magazine and dreamed of a diplomatic career. Winning a scholarship, Merton went on to Cambridge University, but he enjoyed women and drink more than his studies and lost his scholarship after the first year. In 1935 his grandparents insisted that he return to New York and enroll at Columbia University.

At Columbia the twenty-year-old Merton began a real search for meaning in his life. He at first turned to politics, becoming a Communist for a time, but ultimately, through the intercession of English professor Mark Van Doren and philosophy instructor Daniel Walsh, an earlier interest in religion was
rekindled. Merton also showed his proclivity for writing, serving as editor of the Columbia yearbook. In 1938 he was baptized into the Catholic Church; the following year he earned his M.A. from Columbia with a dissertation on English mystical poet William Blake.

A Balancing Act

In addition to a change in academic focus, Merton's professional plans had changed direction over the years, as well. He thought of making a career as a writer and perhaps studying for his doctorate, but after a year spent teaching English at St. Bonaventure University and struggling to determine his true calling, he made a radical decision. He had been deeply moved during a retreat he attended at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, and in late 1941 Merton decided to enter the priesthood at Gethsemani monastery, where he assumed the religious name of Louis. Three years later Merton made his simple vows; in 1947 came the solemn vows; and two years later he became a priest.

While Merton enjoyed the monastic life, it was not without its difficulties; from the beginning he experienced the conflict between his vows to lead a contemplative life of silence and his desire to write. He also had to find his own meaning in the monastic life and its concept of "leaving the world." For Merton, such a departure was more metaphor than reality, for though living in seclusion at Gethsemani, he believed that he and other monks still had obligations and responsibilities to the larger world. But twin vocations called: both the priesthood and writing.

Merton's love of writing had started early in his life, as Israel Shenker noted in the New York Times. "He wrote his first book at the age of ten," wrote Shenker, "and followed it with ten more unpublished novels." One of these early novels was published posthumously as My Argument with the Gestapo: A Macaronic Journal. By 1939, when Merton was teaching university extension classes at night, writing and re-writing novels and articles occupied most of his days. That same year, according to Mott, Merton also "wrote the first poem that would continue to mean something to him." Although Merton had already written quite a few poems, he explained in The Seven Storey Mountain, "I had never been able to write verse before I became a Catholic [in 1938]. I had tried, but I had never really succeeded, and it was impossible to keep alive enough ambition to go on trying."

Merton became well known as a poet during his first years in the monastery. His first book of poetry, Thirty Poems, was published in 1944 and included poems he composed before and after entering the abbey. According to Baker, Merton felt "that the poetry which he wrote at that time was the best of his career." The book received favorable reviews, including an appraisal by poet Robert Lowell who in Commonweal called Merton "easily the most promising of our American Catholic poets."

Merton's next book of poetry included all the selections from his first book plus fifty-six more written during the same period. This book, A Man in the Divided Sea, was equally praised by critics. Calling it "brilliant" and "provocative," Poetry reviewer John Nerber dubbed the work "without doubt, one of the important books of the year." In the New Yorker Louise Bogan wrote that although Merton "has not yet developed a real synthesis between his poetic gifts and his religious ones . . . the possibility of his becoming a religious poet of stature is evident."

Despite the stature of his religious writings and essays, the literary value of Merton's poetry has been the subject of some critical disagreement. As Richard Kostelanetz wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Merton's poems are scarcely anthologized, and his name rarely appears in histories of American literature." Writing in Commonweal, William Henry Shannon argued that Merton's poetry, consisting of "over a thousand pages," contained "a fair amount of . . . mediocre or just plain bad" writing, "but one will also find fine poetry there." Speaking of the religious content of Merton's work, Therese Lentfoehr, writing in her Words and Silence: On the Poetry of Thomas Merton, explained that "only about a third of the poems might be viewed as having specific religious themes." Many of the other poems were accessible to a larger audience because Merton enjoyed writing about children, the natural world, and the larger world outside the monastery. In the 1960s he also wrote poems about social issues of the day.

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After his poetry writing in the 1940s, Merton was not able to write poems in such quantities again until the 1960s. With his appointment in 1951 as master of scholastics, many of his works—such as The Living Bread, No Man Is an Island, and The Silent Life—expanded on ideas expressed in the monastery classes he conducted for the young monks studying for the priesthood. The great bulk of his poems were published together in the posthumous 1977 edition, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton.

The Seven Storey Mountain

Poetry was only one writing outlet for the young monk, however; journals provided a more intimate mode of self-expression. Mott's research revealed that by 1940 Merton was actually keeping two sets of journals, private journals handwritten in bound notebooks and edited typewritten journals that he showed to others. Although not a journal, The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography Merton published in 1948 when he was thirty-three years old, is the book for which he is often best remembered. It was an instant success, selling 6,000 copies in the first month of publication and nearly 300,000 copies the first year. It has been consistently in print since its initial publication and has sold well into the millions of copies.

Even before publication, The Seven Storey Mountain caused considerable excitement for its publisher. Looking for recommendations to print on the book's jacket, Robert Giroux, Merton's editor, sent galley proofs to Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Clare Boothe Luce, soliciting opinions. According to Mott, Waugh responded that The Seven Storey Mountain "may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience." Greene wrote that the autobiography has "a pattern and meaning valid for all of us." And Boothe Luce declared, "It is to a book like this that men will turn a hundred years from now to find out what went on in the heart of men in this cruel century." These enthusiastic replies led Harcourt, Brace publishers to increase the first printing order from 5,000 to 20,000 copies and to order a second printing before publication.

Post-publication reviewers admired The Seven Storey Mountain as well. In Catholic World, reviewer F. X. Connolly noted: "The book is bracing in its realism, sincere, direct and challenging. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a prolonged prayer as well as a great book." Commenting in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, George Shuster wrote that Merton's spiritual "progress to the monastery of Gethsemani is deeply moving. It is a difficult matter to write about, but I think there will be many who, however alien the experience may remain to them personally, will put the narrative down with wonder and respect." George Miles observed in a Commonweal review that "the book is written simply; the sensory images of boyhood are wonderful, and the incisive quality of his criticism, that tartness of his humor have not been sentimentalized by Merton's entry into a monastery. . . . The Seven Storey Mountain is a book that deeply impresses the mind and the heart for days. It fills one with love and hope."

Reviewers and readers were moved by the intriguing story of Merton's undisciplined youth, his conversion to Catholicism, and his subsequent entry into the Trappist monastery. "With publication of his autobiography," as Kenneth L. Woodward observed in Newsweek, "Merton became a cult figure among pious Catholics." According to Edward Rice in his biography The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton, an Entertainment, the autobiography "was forceful enough to cause a quiet revolution among American Catholics, and then among people of many beliefs throughout the world." A Time writer reported that "under its spell disillusioned veterans, students, even teenagers flocked to monasteries across the country either to stay or visit as retreatants." As Kostelanetz observed in the New York Times Book Review, Merton's "example made credible an extreme religious option that would strike many as unthinkable."

Rice theorized that the success of The Seven Storey Mountain was not only due to interest in Merton's story but also to the way the events in his life reflected the feelings of a whole society recovering from the shock of world war. Explained Rice, The Seven Storey Mountain is unique among other books of its kind due to "its great evocation of a young man in an age when the soul of mankind had been laid open as never before during world depression and unrest and the rise of both Communism and Fascism. . . . It became a symbol and a guide to the plight of the contemporary world, touching Catholics and non-Catholics alike in their deep, alienated unconsciousness."

From Monk to Celebrity and Social Activist

The popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain brought money to the Abbey of Gethsemani that was used for much-needed improvements and expansion. As Rice noted, however, it also "catapulted Merton into the eyes of the world," making a celebrity of a man

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who wanted to live in solitude. Without the publication of this autobiography, Mott wrote, it is possible "that Thomas Merton might have achieved
. . . obscurity and oblivion." That was not to be; for the rest of his life Merton had to deal with the consequences of having written such a popular book.

In an interview with Thomas P. McDonnell for Motive undertaken a year before his death, Merton commented on being a best-selling author. "I left [The Seven Storey Mountain] behind many years ago. Certainly, it was a book I had to write, and it says a great deal of what I have to say; but if I had to write it over again, it would be handled in a very different way. . . . Unfortunately, the book was a bestseller, and it has become a kind of edifying legend or something. . . . I am doing my best to live it down. The legend is stronger than I am."

Several critics, including Kramer and Baker, noted a change in Merton's writing style sometime between the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s. Whereas the monk previously appeared to advocate isolation from society as the answer to the question of how a Christian should respond to the unspirituality of the world, his more recent writings began to suggest the need to deal with social injustice through social activism. Baker explained, "By the mid-1960s [Merton's] attitude toward the world had changed so dramatically that Merton-watchers were speaking of the 'early Merton' and the 'later Merton' to distinguish between his two careers: the one as a silent mystic who celebrated the virtues of monastic life in glowing prose and poetry, the other as a social commentator."

Kramer chose three Merton books to demonstrate "the significant changes in awareness" in Merton's writing. The first of these books, Seeds of Contemplation, published in 1949, was entirely spiritual in focus. New Seeds of Contemplation, published in 1961, is a revised version of the same book, and it reflects what Kramer called Merton's "greater concern for the problems of living in the world." The third book Kramer mentioned, Seeds of Destruction, published in 1964, collects essays on world problems, including racism. According to Kramer, the changing themes illustrated in these three books reflect Merton's movement from solitary monk in a monastery cell to social activist. While unable to join the sit-ins and protest marches of the 1960s, Merton was able to express his support for such activities with his writing.

Mott explained the change in Merton's style by noting that at the end of the 1950s, "after sixteen years of isolation from social issues, Merton was beginning to feel cut off from what he needed to know." Since radios, televisions, and newspapers were forbidden in the monastery, only chance readings of magazines and books brought to the abbey by Merton's friends enabled him to keep up with world events. Belatedly, he found out about the suffering caused by the U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Japan and the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. He learned of social injustice in Latin America by reading Latin-American poets, including Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, who spent some time at the Abbey of Gethsemani himself in the late 1950s. Mott continued by noting that Merton "was unsure of himself, certain only that the time had come to move from the role of bystander . . . to that of declared witness." His poetic works Original Child Bomb: Points for Meditation to Be Scratched on the Walls of a Cave, about the atomic bomb and "Chants to Be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces," about the ovens of the Nazi extermination camps, were products of his awakening social conscience.

Merton's increasing concern with racial injustice, the immorality of war—particularly of the Vietnam conflict—and the plight of the world's poor caused new censorship problems. Interestingly, the writer had already encountered problems with monastic censors during his stay at Gethsemani. When originally confronted with the manuscript version of The Seven Storey Mountain, for instance, the censors rejected it because of the numerous references to sex and drinking it contained. In a section of Merton's journal published as The Sign of Jonas the monk complains that one of the censors even "held [that Merton was] incapable of writing an autobiography 'with his present literary equipment' and . . . advised [Merton] to take a correspondence course in English grammar." Although the debate over The Seven Storey Mountain was eventually resolved, censors became even more concerned about Merton's writings on war and peace. Frustrated, Merton circulated some of his work in mimeographed form, creating a body of work that came to be known as "The Cold War Letters." In 1962 he was forbidden by his superiors to write about war, but he could write about peace. Mott quoted a letter Merton wrote that year: "Did I tell you that the decision of the higher ups has become final and conclusive? . . . Too controversial, doesn't give a nice image of monk. Monk concerned with peace. Bad image."

Despite censorship and isolation Merton became, according to Kenneth L. Woodward in Newsweek, "a prophet to the peace movement [and] a conscience to the counterculture." At the height of the escalation of the Vietnam War, he welcomed a Vietnamese Buddhist monk to speak at the abbey, met with folk singer and peace activist Joan Baez, corresponded with notorious Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, and planned a retreat for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that was thwarted by King's assassination. Controversial comedian Lenny Bruce often closed his nightclub act by reading from an essay Merton wrote about German Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in which Merton questions the sanity of the world.

Much of this activity occurred after Merton began living as a hermit in a cabin located in the woods on the monastery grounds. Just as his desire to be removed from the world became greatest, so did his need to speak out on social problems. In his writings, he attempted to explain this paradox as much to himself as to others. In Best Sellers, Sister Joseph Marie Anderson wrote that in Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action the monk stresses "that the contemplative is not exempt from the problem of the world nor is the monastic life an escape from reality." In a review of Merton's The Climate of Monastic Prayer, a Times Literary Supplement critic noted that the author "came to see that the monk is not exempt from the agonies of the world outside his walls: he is involved at another level." The critic offered this quote from Merton's book: "The monk searches not only his own heart: he plunges deep into the heart of that world of which he remains a part although he seems to have 'left' it. In reality the monk abandons the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from the inner depth." According to Lawrence S. Cunningham, writing in Commonweal, Merton viewed the contemplative as someone who "should be able to communicate . . . from the deep center or ground which is God."

Along with social activism, Merton became increasingly interested in the study of other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism. His books Mystics and Zen Masters and Zen and the Birds of Appetite reflect his love for Eastern thought. In the New York Times Book Review Nancy Wilson Ross wrote that in Mystics and Zen Masters Merton "has made a vital, sensitive and timely contribution to the growing worldwide effort . . . to shed new light on mankind's common spiritual heritage." She added that the impetus for the work "might be summed up in a single quotation: 'If the West continues to underestimate and to neglect the spiritual heritage of the East, it may well hasten the tragedy that threatens man and his civilization.'" In the New York Times Book Review Edward Rice explained further: "Merton's first notion was to pluck whatever 'Christian' gems he could out of the East that might fit into the Catholic theological structure. Later he abandoned this attempt and accepted Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam on their own equally valid terms . . . without compromising his own Christianity."

Popularity Transcends Tragic Death

Merton's writings on peace, war, social injustice, and Eastern thought created controversy both inside and outside the abbey. In the revised edition of Thomas Merton: Monk, Daniel Berrigan noted that many people refused to accept the work of the "new" Merton and that they preferred "rather a Merton in their own image, a Merton who [was] safe, and cornered, contemplative in a terribly wrong sense, and therefore manageable." However, as J. M. Cameron remarked in the New York Review of Books, it is most likely these later writings will stand out as Merton's most important work.

Merton died in 1968. Hoping to expand his understanding of Eastern thought, he attended an ecumenical conference in Bangkok, Thailand, his first extended journey outside the monastery walls since his entry in 1941. His death came twenty-seven years to the day from when he first became a member of the Gethsemani community, and was the result of an electrical shock from a faulty fan.

According to Cameron, "Merton will be remembered for two things: his place . . . in the thinking about the morality of war . . . ; and his partially successful attempt to bring out, through study and personal encounter, what is common to Asian and West monasticism and . . . contemplative life." Rice agreed with this observation, noting in The Man in the Sycamore Tree that "the later writings on war and peace, nonviolence, race, . . . and above all on Buddhism, . . . show Merton at his best and most creative." Robert E. Daggy was quoted by Carl Simmons in AB Bookman's Weekly as attributing Merton's continuing popularity to the "great deal of interest in Merton as a human being, sort of struggling through the 20th century, struggling through a period where traditions and roots seem to be lost, where people don't know quite what they believe or what they believe in."

Merton was, as Shannon noted, "one of those persons people instinctively like[d]" and his charisma was still felt decades after his death as his works and life found relevance among a new generation of Catholics and non-Catholics. "His influence," wrote Mitch Finley in Our Sunday Visitor, "is, if anything, on the increase." His ideas on war and peace contained in his writing from the 1960s were echoed in the U.S. Catholic bishops' statement on nuclear war published in the 1980s. His life, too, continues to reveal, Monica Furlong noted in Merton: A Biography, "much about the twentieth century and, in particular, the role of religion in it."

Decades after his passing, interest in Merton has not faded; due to reprints of his written work, the author "has been prolific even in death," according to U.S. Catholic reporter Jim Forest. The fiftieth-anniversary edition of The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1999, prompting Forest to recall that the memoir has "sold millions of copies, been translated into many languages, and never gone out of print." Revisiting The Seven Storey Mountain proved to be surprising, as Forest continued. The first time Forest read Merton's book, "I overlooked his sense of humor. The second time I noticed how funny he was but was put off by the 'Catholics are best' pages and by his occasional outbursts of preaching. Three or four readings later, I finally came to see the book as mainly belonging in the category of love letters." Commonweal contributor Michael O. Garvey deemed the work "a great adventure story, a book that comes roaring at you and beating its chest." Garvey went on, "Much like its author, it will always slightly offend, it will always resist sprucing up, and it will never be made entirely respectable. The Seven Storey Mountain is a treasure to the church."

Between 1995 and 1998 a series of autobiographical writings were published as the seven-volume Journals of Thomas Merton. Volume six, Learning to Love: Exploring Solitude and Freedom caused a small stir when the journal revealed what Merton himself labeled an "affair" he had with a young nurse in 1966. The woman, identified only as "M," was the object of Merton's deep passion: "I have never seen so much simple, spontaneous, total love," he wrote. But the monk stopped short of describing their relationship in sexual terms, and indeed the book's editor, Christine Bochen, suggested in a Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service article that the affair should be put into its proper perspective: "I have this strong sense that this journal needs to read as a chapter in Merton's story, but not a dominant one."

Among the many works by Merton reissued in new formats during the late 1990s and early 2000s is Dialogues with Silence: Prayers and Drawings, which Library Journal's Graham Christian applauded as casting "new and thought-provoking light on his finely written prayers." Similarly a critic for Publishers Weekly lauded this posthumous publication, noting that "like his beautifully crafted letters and journals, Merton's prayers and drawings reveal his multifaceted personality." The same reviewer felt that the book would be a "welcome . . . new addition" to Merton fans. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, a reworking of his 1948 What Is Contemplation, "offers many trenchant insights," according to Library Journal reviewer Stephen Joseph. A contributor for Publishers Weekly likewise praised the "many passages [that] offer vivid examples of Merton's ability to make monastic disciplines intelligible and plausible even to secular readers." And Hauser, reviewing the same title in America, noted: "In this text Merton, the most prolific and widely read Christian spiritual author of the 20th century, gives an orderly approach to his thought on contemplation available in no other text."

A Catholic Writer's Legacy

Merton was "something of a Rebel," as implied in the title of a biography of the spiritual writer by William Shannon. Shannon described his subject as "a unique monk," adding: "One would have to go all the way back to the [twelfth] century—to St. Bernard—to find a monk whose writings were as influential as Merton's have been." But Merton also "belonged to his own age," Shannon wrote. "He wrote in his own time in history, yet so much of what he wrote seemed to reach beyond the culture of his own time. He was supracultural, yet not ahistorical. By that I mean he was alive to the historical circumstances in which he lived, yet not so hemmed in by cultural restraints that he could not break through them."

Like Shannon, several authors have published biographical volumes about the monk over the years. But "perhaps the best indicator of the continuing interest in Thomas Merton," wrote Simmons, "besides the dozens of posthumously published works, is the existence of several centers specifically dedicated to the study of Merton, in New York, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Magog, Quebec." The Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, contains over 10,000 items related to Merton and some 3,000 of his manuscripts. The Merton Legacy Trust, devoted to gathering all future Merton scholarship, is also located at Bellarmine. The International Thomas Merton Society was founded in 1987 and reports a membership of over 1,500 individuals.

Interest in Merton has not receded over the years; indeed, every new posthumous publication attests to the immortality of this Trappist monk with a passion for worldly commitment and a love of writing. As Peter Feuerherd commented in National Catholic Reporter, Merton's "cult continues perhaps because there were so many Mertons. . . . [There was] an aspect of a multifaceted mystic to appeal to just about anyone who has ever had an interest in the deeper recesses of Catholicism or in the deeper meaning of life itself."

If you enjoy the works of Thomas Merton

If you enjoy the works of Thomas Merton, you may also want to check out the following books:

St. Augustine, The Confessions, written in 397.

Brother Antoninus, The Crooked Lines of God: Poems 1949-1954, 1959.

Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart, 1986.

Biographical and Critical Sources


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New York Times, December 11, 1968.

Publishers Weekly, December 30, 1968.

Time, December 20, 1968.

Times (London, England), December 12, 1968.

Washington Post, December 12, 1968.*

Thomas Merton

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Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), Roman Catholic writer, was a Trappist monk, social critic, and spiritual guide.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, France, on January 31, 1915, the first-born child of an American mother, born Ruth Jenkins, and a New Zealander, Owen Merton. His parents, aspiring artists, had met at art school in Paris in 1911 and married in 1914. They seldom were able to earn their living by painting (his mother became an interior decorator and his father worked as a gardener and farmer), but art dominated their lives. Partly because of their opposition to World War I, the Mertons left France for the United States in 1916. There they were received by Ruth's parents in Queens, New York, but soon struck out on their own, trying to live by farming, journalism, and music (for a time Owen was a church organist). A second son, John Paul, was born on November 2, 1918. The profile of the Merton family at this time was one of rather poor, impractical idealists, dedicated to art and peace but not notably religious. Ruth Merton contracted stomach cancer and died in 1921, when Thomas was six.

An Unsettled Early Life

Merton's early schooling was erratic, because his father frequently withdrew the boy to have him alongside during his travels (to Cape Cod and Bermuda, among other places) to paint. Merton's father took a lover, the writer Evelyn Scott, who became young Tom's rival for his father's affections. The father's poverty, and the growing wildness of the son, led in 1923 to Tom's return to New York and the supervision of his grandparents. Owen Merton travelled to the south of France and Algeria, made a success of his painting with a London exhibit, and took Tom (as he was known in the family) back to the south of France with him in 1925. John Paul stayed in New York, while Owen (minus Evelyn Scott, who had left him) and Tom began life in St. Antonin, a rather medieval town. Tom attended a local French Catholic school, was subject to much bullying, and experienced during a reunion with his grandparents and brother in 1926 that bitterness that had become the norm in his family's relationships. He thought of his brother as a rival, and his grandparents, who had never approved of his father, were vocal in their prejudices against the Catholic schooling he was receiving.

Tom was soon moved to the secular Lycée Ingres in nearby Montauban, which he disliked because of its harsh discipline and poor food. In 1927 he was diagnosed as having contracted tuberculosis and was placed with a couple in Auvergne to rest and recuperate. In 1928 Owen Merton had another successful art show in London and, on the advice of friends, moved Tom there for schooling. Owen had been sick periodically, and in 1931 he died, unaware that the paintings he had stored in France, on which he had rested his hopes of acquiring an artistic reputation, had been destroyed by flood.

So at age 16 Thomas Merton was a full orphan. He had been taken in three years previously by an aunt and uncle in London who were connected to the British public school system, and he was sent to Oakham public school. In 1931 his grandfather presented him with a measure of financial independence (stocks and land). London and sophistication became his enthusiasms, although at the end of 1930 he spent a brief time in Strasbourg for language studies. He did well at Oakham, becoming editor of the literary magazine, majoring in languages, and considering a future career in the British diplomatic corps.

Having won a scholarship to Cambridge, Merton finished his schoolboy career reading widely, travelling to Europe and America, and thinking romantic thoughts about poetry and young women. He also became more interested in religion, a subject he had previously approached with hostility. At Cambridge, however, he was so lured by alcohol and women (there were persistent rumors he had fathered at least one illegitimate child) that he neglected his studies and at the end of the first year did not do well enough in his examinations to renew his scholarship. On the advice—if not command—of his grandparents he returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University.

Turn Toward Religion

By 1935 the chief question in Merton's life was the existence of God. This dominated his years at Columbia, where he was a great success. However, at first he was more interested in writing and politics than in formal religion. In politics he felt drawn to socialist and communist political theory (more than their practice). He made good friends with a literary circle, was impressed by the English professor Mark Van Doren, and became editor of the Columbia Year-book.

After graduation he stayed on for a master's degree in English literature (becoming much interested in William Blake), and in 1938 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, culminating months of study of Catholic writers. Among these the philosopher Jacques Maritain was especially influential. He initially planned on a career as a writer, perhaps after a doctoral degree at Columbia, but slowly began considering a vocation in the priesthood. After various struggles, teaching at St. Bonaventure's University, and fear of being drafted, in April of 1941 he made a retreat at the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, and in December of 1941 joined the community there, entering what he expected to be a great world of silence.

Trappist Monk and Author

Thomas Merton's fame stems from the autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, that he published in 1948. In the first seven years of his life as a Trappist he had completed the novitiate and been allowed to write poetry. Indeed, his writing had become a matter about which both he and his superiors were of several minds. On the one hand, the superiors put him to writing works designed to explain the monastic life. On the other hand, both they and Merton himself feared that writing would encourage self-centeredness and eccentricity. The Seven Storey Mountain was a great success, being compared to The Confessions of St. Augustine, and it made Merton a name in households interested in religious, especially Catholic, literature.

Merton was ordained a priest in 1949, and he continued to write books, mainly on the monastic life and contemplation, that received good press. Most notable of those from the time of his ordination are Seeds of Contemplation and The Sign of Jonas. Already his concrete, readable style and his mixture of poetic and monastic sensibilities were winning him a wide audience. He was praised for being able to escape the technical vocabulary of theology and to communicate the substance of Christian experience of prayer, community life, manual work, sacramentality, and the like. At this point his spirituality was rather traditionally monastic. In later years he would win a wider audience by venturing into social questions, above all racial justice and the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. In his final years his interests broadened to Eastern religions, especially Buddhist monastic life and Taoist spirituality. But from the time of the appearance of The Seven Storey Mountain he was famous as the man who had been converted from a dramatic life of artistic self-indulgence to an equally dramatic life of monastic silence and penance (out of which, paradoxically, came a torrent of books).

These books helped his monastery financially in the late 1950s and they attracted more applicants to the Order. Merton assumed greater responsibilities within the monastery, serving as master of novices, but he disliked the turn toward business (dairy and food products) the monastery had taken. Through many years he was at odds with his abbot about these matters and the management of reproduction rights to his books. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1951.

During the 1950s Merton continued to turn out good books on the spiritual life, and he continued to study subjects, such as psychoanalysis and zen, that he thought would help him better counsel the young monks of whom he had charge. He read widely: the fathers of the church, modern literature, Latin American history (in view of the possibility of his monastery's founding another establishment there). He also went more deeply into the Bible. In addition to his books, he wrote copiously in diaries. Some of his works on secular subjects were rejected by Church censors, and Merton felt increasingly attracted to living apart from his community as a hermit. Although he had many friends in the monastery, rules against intimacy, and increasingly conflicts with his abbot, made life there a trial.

Eventually he did win permission to live apart at Gethsemani. Through the 1960s Merton expanded his wide correspondence with eminent figures (which already included the Zen authority D. T. Suzuki and the Russian writer Boris Pasternak). He continued to write poetry, with his major themes increasingly concerned with violence and injustice. He intensified his opposition to nuclear warfare, supported Catholic pacifists (until one burned himself in protest), and received a stream of distinguished visitors to Gethsemani. Merton was encouraged by the changes within the Catholic Church under Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council. He expanded his already wide range of interests: photography, Muslim and Jewish cultures, and a deepening interest in Buddhist and Hindu monasticism.

In 1966, during a stay in the hospital, he fell in love with a student nurse and felt transformed by this wonderful yet painful experience. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, published in 1966, was one of his most influential works and won praise for illuminating the connection between monastic solitude and social conscience. His Asian Journal of 1968, which recorded impressions of a trip he made to give lectures and study Asian monasticism, was also influential. Merton died of accidental electrocution on December 10, 1968, in Bangkok, where he was participating in a conference on monasticism and ecumenism.

Further Reading

Of Merton's own works, The Seven Storey Mountain, The Sign of Jonas, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton form a representative collection. Two posthumous collections, The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (1977) and The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns (1985), complement these works. Three useful biographical studies are Elena Malits's The Solitary Explorer: Merton's Transforming Journey (1980), Monica Furlong's Merton: A Biography (1980), and Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (1984).

Additional Sources

Forest, James H., Living with wisdom: a life of Thomas Merton, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991.

Grayston, Donald, Thomas Merton, the development of a spiritual theologian, New York: E. Mellen Press, 1985.

Kountz, Peter, Thomas Merton as writer and monk: a cultural study, 1915-1951, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Pub., 1991.

McInerny, Dennis Q., Thomas Merton; the man and his works, Spencer, Mass. Cistercian Publications; distributed by Consortium Press, Washington, 1974.

Nouwen, Henri J. M., Thomas Merton, contemplative critic, New York, N.Y.: Triumph Books, 1991.

Woodcock, George, Thomas Merton, monk and poet: a critical study, Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1978. □

Merton, Thomas

views updated May 23 2018


MERTON, THOMAS (19151968), Roman Catholic monk, author, and poet. Merton pursued a career that may be divided into three distinct phases: secular, monastic, and public. The secular career encompasses the first twenty-six years of his life and culminates with his entrance into the abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, in 1941. The basic elements that influenced his later life were set in place during this period. Merton was born on 31 January 1915 in Prades, France, the first child of artist Ruth Jenkins Merton of Zanesville, Ohio, and artist Owen Merton of Christchurch, New Zealand. The family moved to New York City the next year to escape World War I. The loss of his mother while still a child, his father at age sixteen, and a younger brother in World War II, contributed to Merton's sense of the tragic contingency of human life and, possibly, to his decision to enter monastic life. The influence from two parents who were artists and instinctive pacifists bore fruit in their son's pursuits as writer, poet, and prophet of nonviolence.

Merton attended school in the United States, Bermuda, France, and England before commencing higher education. He entered Clare College of Cambridge University on scholarship and completed his undergraduate education at Columbia University in New York. His friendships with Professor Mark Van Doren, the Pulitzer Prize poet, and fellow student Robert Lax, the future poet, helped to develop his already existing interests in mysticism, poetry, and monasticism. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1938, completed an M.A. in literature from Columbia in 1939, and entered the abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 while working on a never-completed Ph.D. thesis on Gerard Manley Hopkins and teaching English at Saint Bonaventure University in New York State.

The second phase of Merton's career is his life as a monk of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. The rigor of this life is characterized by perpetual silence, a lifelong vegetarian diet, and many hours of daily prayer starting at 2:00 am. The purpose of this regimen is the development of a contemplative life. Many of those who knew Merton well believe he became a mystic during these years. The last three years of his life were also lived as a hermit, removed from the communal life of the monastery.

The third phase of Merton's life, the public career, is somewhat coincident with the second and is marked by an intense involvement in writing, social protest, and Asian spirituality. The most famous of his sixty books is Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography about a personal search that brings him from unfocused activism to contemplation and from a life of self-indulgence to self-discipline. The writings of Merton include eight volumes of poetry and some six hundred articles.

If a career in writing was unconventional, Merton's involvement in social protest was even less part of the monastic model. He objected vehemently to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, violations of the rights of black Americans, and the dehumanizing effects of technology. This protest caused him difficulty at times with readers who favored a pietistic style of writing, with church superiors, and with members of his monastic community. He persevered in putting his views forward, however, believing that mystics owed their contemporaries the value of their own unique witness.

In the final years of his life, Merton was committed to Hindu and Buddhist spiritual wisdom without diminishing his attachment to Catholic Christianity. Zen Buddhism, most especially, appealed to Merton because of its emphasis on experience rather than doctrine. Merton searched for God through participation in the ancient spiritualities of Asia on a long journey to the East that was his personal pilgrimage and a metaphor of his life. He died of accidental electrocution in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968.


The authorized biography of Thomas Merton, Michael Mott's The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston, 1984), is an exhaustively researched and yet readable study. It may suffer from lack of a central interpretive theme but sets a standard for subsequent work on Merton. Merton: A Biography by Monica Furlong (New York, 1980) is a reliable account, although little attention is given to Merton's monastic vocation or his involvement with Asian spirituality. Thomas Merton: Monk and Poet, by George Woodcock (New York, 1978), is a perceptive analysis of the creative dynamics in Merton's literary work. The author, himself a poet and novelist, is sensitive to the religious dimension of Merton's life. My own book, The Human Journey: Thomas Merton, Symbol of a Century (New York, 1982), draws out the correlations between Merton's personal life and the tensions and aspirations of the twentieth century. It traces the appeal of Merton to his capacity to assimilate the problems and promise of his own time.

Anthony Padovano (1987)

Merton, Thomas

views updated May 14 2018


Trappist monk, poet, and author; b. Jan. 31, 1915, Prades, France; d. Dec. 10, 1968, Bangkok, Thailand. The son of artists, his father, Owen Merton from New Zealand and his mother Ruth Jenkins Merton from America, Merton pursued his studies in Europe and America in literature, particularly in poetry, in which art he was first recognized and came to excel. Imbued with a strong social sense which led him simultaneously to espouse basic charity and to test an attraction to monasticism, he became a Catholic in 1938, and in 1941 entered the Trappist abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

The publication of his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in 1948 brought him into international prominence. He began a series of writings on various spiritual subjects which was constantly to try his monastic vocation as they made him a famous celebrity. He was one of the first, and among the few in his time, to reemphasize the primary value of the contemplative life and to ground it in sound scholarship and social concern. Through his writings and example, he inspired and trained a generation of Christian contemplatives, not only in the Bernardian Cistercian tradition of strict monasticism with a watchful eye on the outside world, but also in the Carmelite tradition of St. John of the Cross. In his last years he lived out the same contradictiona hermit yet one whose advice and friendship were sought by many great men, notably Jacques Maritain, a principal adviser of Pope Paul VI. As perhaps the most famous monk in the world at the time, and while investigating the ideologies and resources of Far Eastern spirituality, he died suddenly in Bangkok, at the first Pan-Asian Monastic Conference, an international congress on the future of monasticism, half a world away from the hermitage he had sought and found in Kentucky, and at the very height of his spiritual perception.

Merton's own works are numerous. Among the more significant are Asian Journal (New York 1972); Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City 1968); Faith and Violence (South Bend 1968); New Seeds of Contemplation (New York 1972); No Man Is an Island (Garden City 1955); Selected Poems (Garden City 1967); Seven Storey Mountain (Garden City 1970); The New Man (New York 1981) and The Climate of Monastic Prayer (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1973).

Bibliography: j. finley, Merton's Palace of Nowhere: A Search for God through Awareness of the True Self (Notre Dame, Ind. 1978). p. hart, ed. The Message of Thomas Merton (Kalamazoo, Mich. 1981). m. mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston 1984). m. b. pennington, Thomas Merton Brother Monk: The Quest for True Freedom (San Francisco 1987). w. h. shannon, "Something of a Rebel": Thomas Merton, His Life and Works: An Introduction (Cincinnati, Ohio 1997). l. cunningham, Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision (Grand Rapids, Mich.1999). r. g. waldron, Walking with Thomas Merton: Discovering His Poetry, Essays, and Journals (New York 2001). For a convenient collection of extracts from Merton's principal writings, see Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, ed. c. m. bochen (Maryknoll, N.Y. 2000)

[j. kritzeck/eds.]

Merton, Thomas

views updated May 23 2018

Merton, Thomas (1915–68). Trappist monk and writer. Born in France, he went to school in England and university in the USA, where, after a confused adolescence, he became a Roman Catholic and in 1941 joined the Trappists at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. His autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1946), portrayed a traditional conversion story to traditional Catholicism. But Merton's way, recorded in his immense literary output, echoed the changes in modern Catholicism, leading to a greater openness to other traditions, and a deep concern for the moral dilemmas of the contemporary world.

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